Back in February, the wonderful Imagine! Festival for children ran in the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. I was involved in a small way with the part of that festival run by the Inclusive Minds collective. As the name implies, their session was all about making books and stories accessible to all sorts of children, and making sure that books for children include every sort of child and children from all sorts of backgrounds. It was a wonderful day of sensory stories, signed poetry, a huge wall on which all could draw themselves (or anything they fancied), some serious adult debate, and a lot of story sharing, drawing, chatter and fun. And it set me thinking.
It is, of course, important to include children of all races, from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, and those with disabilities, naturally within picture books; representing all of us without exclusion. Nick Sharratt has managed to include a number of children with visual clues to particular conditions in our’ Just Imagine’ book’s busy pictures.
But the What About Me? event stated that, ‘the organisers believe that ALL children should be able to see themselves, their lives, their friends and their families represented in the stories and pictures they are given.’ But I wonder if there isn’t a danger that that idea might be taken too literally? Does that mean that a boy with ginger hair who wears a hearing aid won’t see himself in a picture of a black haired girl wearing a hearing aid? Do we really want to see ourselves exactly in books? If so, books will have to be tailor-made for each reader … and I, for one, DON’T want to read about, or see, a story about a plump middle-aged woman with scruffy hair who writes stories for children! I want other experiences, beyond my own real ones, when I read. But I DO want to find emotional states in stories that I recognise and want to explore. It’s at that gut feeling level that I find the point of contact between myself and a story.
I think we’re in danger of forgetting the power of imagination in all this, and I’d suggest that picture books with animal characters are a great way to avoid all those visual mis-match problems whilst getting to the emotional heart of the matter.
For some reason it’s easier to identify with a fictional character who looks totally unlike us than it is to identify with a character who is human, but different from us in age or sex or appearance or background. So we all sympathise with lovely elephant Elmer’s insecurity in the happy story about him by David McKee in which patchwork Elmer attempts to blend in with the grey elephants. A similar story about a child with, for example, a walking frame, who tried to get rid of the walking frame so as to look like the other children, would tend to be a very uncomfortable and unhappy read. Elmer does a better job than a human character could in making us realise how it might be difficult to be different, and the need for others to consider and do something about that difficulty … in this case by having an Elmer Day once a year when all the elephants paint themselves fancy colours.
There are picture books with animal characters which more obviously tackle a specific disability. Jeanne Willis and Sarah Fox-Davies’ ‘Mole’s Sunrise’ is a very beautiful book in which blind Mole’s kind friends take him to ‘see’ the sun rise, and describe what they see so as to share that visual experience with Mole.
Yes, we certainly do need children of all sorts included in picture books, but please don’t forget the richness of what is already out there in stories that on the surface are about animals, but at heart are all about human emotions and experiences.
Have you got other picture book examples you would recommend, featuring examples of anthropomorphic characters whose experiences might chime with disabled or marginalised children?